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mick cochrane   My Bread and Butter: The Novelist as Human Naturalist  
 
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  In Flesh Wounds, there's not much nature of the Wordsworthian rainbow and daffodil variety, little flora and less fauna, just a few houseplants and a couple of dogs. That's about it. It's the story of a midwestern family. There are no waterfalls, no mountains, no killer storms. A big blizzard is predicted but never materializes. If pressed about setting, I would be tempted to say, like Raymond Carver, that most of my fiction takes place indoors and leave it at that.

Maybe I'm nature impaired. Like one of my characters who is a confirmed and unrepentant garbage-snatcher, my heart leaps up when I behold a rickety rocking chair, a discarded child's desk. I am fascinated by the homely artifacts of everyday life, by the stories they tell. House-hunting with my wife several years ago, I proved utterly incapable of making any sensible judgments about the structure we examined: I was too distracted by the pictures on the mantel and the artwork on the fridge, by the posters and trophies in the bedroom, by the bedside books. I was too busy trying to imagine the lives lived in the house, feeling heavy sometimes with the particular heartache--illness, divorce, old age--that put a house on the market.

Truth be told, I am more interested in the contents of a junk drawer that I am a cloud formation; I'd rather poke around your attic than stare at a sunset; if I listen to warblers warble too long, I get bored, which never happens when I am eavesdropping on the subway, say, gathering up snippets of overheard conversations. These are scraps of narrative, pieces of a life--the stuff of humanity. It may be garbage to you, Bernie Beerman, my trash man in Minnesota, used to tell me. But it's my bread and butter.

In fact, my English lit hero is not Wordsworth but Samuel Johnson, whom I have long loved for his rough and dusty genius, for his humanity and generosity; who hated ignorance and poverty and slavery, who was followed in the London streets by beggars and never once returned home with spare change in his pocket, who opened his house to a quarreling collection of oddballs he dearly loved. "A blade of grass is always a blade of grass," Johnson said. "Men and women are my subject of enquiry." When he talked about nature, most often he meant human nature, that tangle of hope and fear, of greed and generosity, of courage and cowardice. The best fiction--the fiction I love to read, fiction I aspire to write--explores this human landscape, the tumultuous terrain of the heart. It charts the origins and outcomes of the lies we tell ourselves, our habit of what Johnson calls self-treachery, a force as dark and destructive as any hurricane; it traces our most generous impulses, too, no less mysterious, records moments of grace sweet as spring rain.

A few early readers of my novel have asked what prompted me to examine the inner life of so many characters obviously quite different from myself--a 13 year old girl, a child molester, his wife. Isn't it presumptuous? If I could manage a suitable justification--I can't, I'm a storyteller not a theorist--I would say something like this: Whatever divides us--age, and gender, race, and class--there is still more we hold in common. Again, Dr. Johnson: "We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure." It's an old-fashioned idea, I know, this notion of a common human nature, probably thoroughly discredited by now in the best critical circles. But that, as the corny song goes, is what I believe.

I believe we share an appetite for story, too. Whether it's fed by Tolstoy or by People magazine, by literature or by gossip, the craving is the same. We're hungry for human news. We want to know what it's like to be someone else. We're curious. It's our nature.
 
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Copyright © 1997 Mick Cochrane.

Photo of Mick Cochrane copyright © Tom Wolf.